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About the project

Imagining Gender Futures in Uganda (IMAGENU)

State of the art and rationale

Imagining future relationships between the genders preoccupies policymakers, development practitioners and citizens alike. Policymakers envision gender equality and the empowerment of all women in distant futures. For citizens, however, gender issues are immediately and urgently present in their lives within the domestic realm of partnerships, household and family. Ugandan citizens are concerned about livelihood, access to land and children’s futures, and about themental and reproductive health issues related to gender inequalities. Changes in gender relations are happening all over the country.

In northern Uganda, they are often related to post-conflict factors, but formalized marriage and the payment of bridewealth are declining everywhere; partnerships are less stable; multiple concurrent relations are common; alcoholism, depression, and trauma cast shadows on immediate gender futures. The total fertility rate remains high, while more and more children are born outside of marriage and lack a socially recognized father, a situation that makes them vulnerable in a patrilineal society where access to resources is primarily through the father and his family. While some decry the decline in marriage, others see the change as a welcome undermining of patriarchy that opens new possibilities for gender equality.

The state and development practitioners have made laws and interventions to address problems in this more intimate sphere of gender relations. In 2013 the Marriage and Divorce Bill again failed ratification in Parliament, at least in part because of the way it would promote women’s property rights in marriage. Reproductive health programmes provide contraception, HIV programmes counsel about sexual relations, Child and Family Protection Units at police stations enforce the Defilement Law, NGOs are countering gender-based violence, and efforts are made to keep girl-children in school. Yet these specific initiatives are seldom based on a comprehensive understanding of how socially sustained marriage and filiation of children are changing.

Despite all the recent attention to gender issues and women’s disadvantages, there has been very little recognition of a widespread trend in a very fundamental dimension of gender relations: marriage. In Uganda, as in countries of southern Africa, formal marriage is declining sharply. In 1995, about 64% of women aged 15-49 considered themselves ‘married’, while 9% were ‘cohabiting’ (USD 1996). By 2016, only 30% were married, while 30% were 2 cohabiting. The proportion of those who were never married increased from 16% to 26% (UBOS 2017). This means that the traditional function of marriage in strengthening social cohesion by linking families through exchange (e.g. bridewealth) is weakened. Its other function in legitimating and affiliating children is equally undermined; many women must find ways to support their children without a husband’s help.

Research on gender in Africa, and Uganda specifically, has a long history. There was an early anthropological focus on kinship and marriage (Radcliffe- Brown & Forde 1950, Mair 1969), fundamental as they are for social structure. Starting in the 1980s, many studies of gender patterns have focused on women (Obbo 1980, Kyomuhendo & McIntosh 2006, Mogensen 2011, Doss et al. 2012, Decker 2014, Porter 2016). Only recently have issues of masculinity come to the fore (Dolan 2009, Wyrod 2016, Kizza et al. 2012, Siu et al. 2012, 2014), although ‘the other side of gender’—men and masculinity (Vess et al. 2013)—was already flagged by research in Western Kenya years ago (Silberschmidt 1999).

Many scholars have addressed issues of sexuality, partnership and gender patterns in relation to the AIDS epidemic (Whyte 2005, Seeley et al. 2009, Whyte et al. 2014, Parikh 2015, Wyrod 2016). Few if any of these studies have directly addressed the decline in formal marriage and its implications for gender relations and children in specific arenas of family life. While studies of gender are well-established, research on futures is newer (Appadurai 2013, Adam & Groves 2007, Mische 2009, Meinert & Schneidermann 2014). Most social science studies about futures do not attempt to predict them; they are rather concerned with the formation, nature and consequences of different images of the future for action in the present (Wallman 1992). The analysis of laws and policies involves contrasting their intentions (images of a desired future) with their effects, as Parikh (2012) did in relation to the Defilement Law, and Meinert in relation to Universal Primary Education (2009). How differently situated citizens imagine gender futures in their own lives is often more implicit. Scholars suggest that we consider how people frame temporality in terms of near and distant futures (Guyer 2007) and ‘vital conjunctures’ (Johnson- Hanks 2002), when alternative future horizons open. They reflect on the extent to which people feel that they have some control over the future (Wallman 1992, Johnson-Hanks 2005).

IMAGENU will provide a new perspective on gender and futures by placing marriage and its decline at the centre, showing how this most fundamental gender relation implicates livelihoods, education, health and people’s imaginations, expectations and hopes for the future. It will investigate the new forms of gender relations that are replacing formal marriage. Unlike previous studies it will be comparative in four ways: it will examine both male and female situations; it will trace changes by comparing grandparents, middle-aged parents, and youth; it will attend to socio-economic (class) differences; it will bring together studies from greater northern and eastern Uganda.

The choice of Uganda as project location is justified on two grounds. First, it has a long-standing explicit policy to promote gender equality (Tripp 2000), supported by many interventions. Second, the senior researchers have very many years of experience with research and research capacity building on related issues in Uganda.


The Danish MFA draft Country Programme for Uganda emphasises empowerment of women for inclusive economic growth. Yet as stated in Uganda’s Gender Policy, adopted in 2007, empowerment efforts must consider how household and family relations, in determining control of livelihood assets, influence participation in development processes. The current National Development Plan points to the need to address disparities in health including HIV prevalence, gender-based violence, the high fertility rate, and teenage pregnancies. Like the SDG 5, these policies envision more equal gender futures. IMAGENU will provide a better understanding of how differently positioned citizens imagine gender futures on the basis of present and past experience and constraints. It will show how changing patterns of union and household structure affect and are affected by livelihood, health and education. While many policy and intervention efforts are focused on empowerment of women, IMAGENU will take a gender perspective in examining changes in the position of men as well, and consider how changes in partnership formations influence the vulnerabilities and possibilities of the next generation. In order to ensure uptake of research results IMAGENU will collaborate with the Ministry of Gender, NGOs, including International Research on Women (IRW) and Promundo, and the relevant responsible officers at the Danish Embassy in Kampala.


The overall purpose of this project is to enhance research capacity by generating new knowledge about how changing patterns of gender partnerships relate to livelihood, education, and reproductive and mental health. This will contribute to the development of relevant social gender policies, and create debate in the wider public.

The specific objectives are to explore the following research questions, which constitute Work Packages.

1. How do men and women imagine futures of marriage and child filiation in light of current far reaching changes in patterns of partnership?

In contrast to the studies mentioned above, IMAGENU will generate comparative knowledge about changes in both partnerships and children’s positions. In locations in northern and eastern Uganda, it will examine how partnership patterns have changed over three generations, documenting expectations and hopes—and the realities that affect them over time. It will examine men’s and women’s perceptions and practices concerning the situations of children not socially acknowledged by their biological fathers. Attention will be given to the effects of education, class, globalisation, popular culture, and social media on current imaginations of partnerships and gender futures.

2. How are gendered livelihood possibilities affected by changes in partnership and child filiation?

As stated in the Uganda Gender Policy (2007:16) intra household power relations determine control of livelihood assets and thereby individual participation in development processes. The allocation of resources is related to the nature of partnership and recognition of children. IMAGENU will examine changes in access to land and labour through kinship and partnership, with emphasis on the situations of children without accepted paternal affiliation. It will study intra-household contests about the relative contributions of men and women to household livelihoods in relation to types of partnership. A community study of labour migration by both men and women will highlight consequences for partnership.

3. How do patterns of gendered reproductive and mental health affect and reflect changing patterns of partnership?

Reproductive health issues include family planning, HIV, and male involvement in sexual and reproductive health. Trauma (PTSD), depression, anxiety, high levels of alcohol consumption, and genderbased violence are issues in very many partnerships. IMAGENU will focus on these issues as they relate to the nature of partnership. The assumption of male sexual privilege (that men can/should have multiple partners and determine matters of sexual relations) has been researched in an urban Ugandan setting (Wyrod 2016). We will undertake a rural study of how male sexual privilege is accepted/contested. We will examine negotiations about family planning in relationship to a partnership’s duration and degree of formality. We will investigate how mental health (including alcoholism and drug abuse) affects the formation and (in)stability of partnerships.

4. How are changing partnership patterns related to education?

After 20 years of universal primary education, many more children, especially girls, go to school. We will investigate how this affects partnership formation, reproductive decisions and child affiliation. It is a continuing concern in Uganda that girls still drop out of school in their teens and that children with no accepted paternal affiliation have weaker possibilities for further education. IMAGENU will conduct a study of patterns of pregnancy, partnership formation and school completion. We will explore relations between education, class and partnerships using concepts of cultural, social, economic capital (Bourdieu 1984), and vital conjunctures when pregnancy interrupts education (Johnson-Hanks 2006). Building on earlier data from 1997 and 2007 (Meinert 2009), we will do a longitudinal study of how schooling influences choice of partner, formalization of partnership, reproductive decisions and child affiliation.

Expected outcomes and outputs

The most important outcome of the project is increased capacity at Gulu University (GU) for research on the fundamental aspects of gender relations, child affiliation and future imagination that shape immediate concerns and affect development possibilities. Younger scholars will acquire skills in data collection, analysis and collegial teamwork that will enable them to make continuing academic, policy and practical contributions to the field of gender and development. A second outcome will be more comprehensive knowledge on which to base policy, interventions, and public debate. The outputs will be scholarly publications contributing to international discussions and conceptualisations of gender issues with particular focus on partnerships in relation to livelihood, reproductive and mental health, and education. Specific education outputs will be 4 PhD and 4 MA theses. Other outputs will be popular disseminations in radio shows and 3 short video documentaries that can be used for education and communication purposes. IMAGENU will produce relevant policy briefs based on the four WPs and will engage with policymakers and practitioners to communicate research findings and make an impact on policy initiatives and practices.


The project design is comparative, investigating post-conflict situations in greater northern Uganda and economically similar regions of eastern Uganda that have not recently experienced armed conflict. Although specific studies will address the different objectives, we will develop a common toolbox from which researchers may draw. All studies will be founded on basic assessments of changes in partnership and child filiation in order to ensure coherence and comparability. In every location, researchers will conduct interviews about partnership histories with 10 grandparents, 10 middle-aged parents, and 10 youth, selecting men and women who are more and less educated. This will yield data on change and variation. A senior researcher will assemble an overview of partnership changes in all locations and will review literature and unpublished data from the rest of the country in order to provide a broad perspective. Annual workshops, with participation of a guest scholar, will facilitate sharing of data and ongoing comparisons.

Data will be assembled primarily through qualitative methods: interviews, extended cases, participant observation, and focus group discussions. The common toolbox will make use of linked life trajectory interviews with individuals and their partners, families and networks. In each locality, we will conduct interviews about distant and near futures, using diagrams inspired by the Gender Action Learning System for imagining the future (Oxfam nd). IMAGENU will use a ‘follow the actor’ principle and snowball sampling. We will do formal interviews with policy makers, NGOs and practitioners in relevant institutions. Existing quantitative data on partnerships will be examined: national census material, the Demographic and Health Surveys, and statistics from other studies (e.g. the Demographic Surveillance Site in Awach, Gulu District). We will collaborate with the NGOs Promundo and International Research on Women (IRW), which have just completed the large International Men and Gender Equality Survey in Central Uganda. This will provide important comparisons with the North and East. The backbone of the project is 4 PhDs (3 from Uganda) and 3 post docs (2 from Uganda), who will all be co-supervised/mentored by senior Danish and Ugandan researchers. They will jointly and individually receive training in literature search, primary data collection, analysis, writing, and presentation of results at scholarly conferences. Working with journalists and development practitioners, we will also provide training in policy input and popular dissemination through print and online media, radio and short videos. The networks and experience of our partners Promundo and IRW will be helpful in these regards. Their experience in translating research findings into interventions, and in comparing different conditions (including post-conflict situations) will feed into our research and training.

We will follow established procedures for seeking ethical approval from the Gulu University Research Ethics Committee, which is necessary before proceeding to the Uganda National Council of Science and Technology for approval of the project. At the outset, we will meet with officials from the Ministry of Gender in order to get their input and to coordinate with other ongoing research. At district level, we will maintain regular communication with the Community Development Officers. We will invite these authorities, as well as relevant NGOs, to two decision-maker and practitioner seminars. We regard such interactions not only as provision of information to relevant authorities, but also as research and dialogue that are part of the enhancement of capacity.

Overview of the research plan

The overall research plan stretches from pre-project activities in 2018 to mid 2022, according to the following time plan.

Organisation and management

DK partners have extensive experience managing large research projects and AU has effective institutional structures for research management, including personnel who have already worked with colleagues from (GU). The senior Danish researchers have decades of experience with research capacity strengthening at Makerere University and GU. The management competence of GU is developing and a special effort will be made to involve a new generation of female researchers in management. The project will be based at the Institute of Peace and Strategic Studies (IPSS) at GU. The day-to-day management of the project at IPSS will be done by a part time Research Coordinator at IPSS, in collaboration with the PI at GU and the PI at AU. They will oversee the implementation of the annual and quarterly work plans and reporting. A Management Committee (senior researchers and managers) will coordinate and adjust annual plans and WPs. A GU steering committee (GU management representative, senior researchers and IMAGENU management) will ensure inter- and intra-university collaboration and coordination. The management

Capacity strengthening

As a relatively young, somewhat remote, public university, GU has thus far been considered a regional university with most research projects focused on the Ugandan greater north (Whyte & Whyte 2015). IMAGENU will widen its scope by including studies from other parts of the country, increasing its quality and competitiveness in both the national and international arenas. IMAGENU will support and supervise 3 PhD students, who will get their degrees from GU and be supervised by senior researchers from GU and DK. In addition, 4 second year MA students will be included in IMAGENU and 2 post docs will be based at IPSS. The development of talent at the junior research level is key to research capacity building. Senior researchers will have the opportunity to go for research stays in Denmark, and together with PhDs and post docs they will participate in  international conferences, disseminate results and develop policy briefs. All researchers, and post docs in particular, will be trained and given opportunity to develop visual skills for disseminating research. IMAGENU will work closely with the Building Stronger Universities III project at GU, in which some of us are already participating. The topical themes in this final phase of BSU are ‘Transforming Education’ and ‘Gender, Resources and Rights’; BSUIII plans courses and collaborative research projects in these two areas, ensuring an excellent fit with IMAGENU. PhDs and post-docs will participate and we will use the opportunity to involve MA students in small research projects on our objectives. These activities will constitute significant capacity strengthening and consolidate research and research management experience at GU.


IMAGENU will partner with International Research on Women and Promundo, which are international NGOs with extensive research and development networks in the field of gender. We will organize 2 panels at the African Studies Association and the European Association of African Studies (ECAS) meetings. Apart from this, individual researchers will be enabled to attend relevant research conferences to disseminate their findings internationally and nationally. PhD students from IMAGENU will be able to attend PhD summer schools and workshops organized by ANTHUSIA (Anthropology of Human Security in Africa) – a European Joint Doctorate programme under the EU Horizon 2020 initiative. We will meet with officials from the Ministry of Gender, the responsible officer at the Danish Embassy, as well as the Task team leader of the World Bank supported ‘Strengthening social risk management and gender-based violence and response project’ in order to link up with other ongoing research and initiatives. We will draw upon the collegial networks of the senior Danish researchers in the fields of health, education and gender.

Publication and dissemination strategy

The main target groups for publications and dissemination of the research are: (i) networks of academics, (ii) local and national authorities, policy makers and development partners (iii) the general public & communities.

i. Scholarly Dissemination: The sub-studies in each WP headed by a senior researcher will produce 2-3 international peer reviewed articles/book chapters and 3-4 conference papers. Each post doc will produce 2-3 international peer reviewed articles/book chapters and 2-3 conference papers. Each PhD student will write 1 article/book chapter and 2 conference papers, apart from the PhD thesis.

We will organize two conference panels and will turn these panel papers into articles collected in 2 journal special issues on 1. Gender futures, health and livelihoods and 2. Education and the future of marriage and partnerships in Africa. The articles will be published in journals such as  Africa, Journal of Modern African Studies, African Studies Review, Journal of East African Studies, Journal of Peace and Security Studies.

By the end of the project we will produce a common book publication on Imagining Gender Futures. This will include contributions from project members as well as the international scholars visiting IPSS.

ii. Disseminations to authorities, policy makers, and development partners: From project start we will collaborate with authorities, policymakers and development partners to make sure that research foci and findings are relevant to decision makers and ongoing initiatives. We will produce four specific policy briefs based on each WP focusing on: 1. Changes in marriage/ partnership patterns and child affiliation; 2. Gendered livelihood possibilities affected by changes in partnership and child filiation; 3. Partnership dynamics related to reproductive and mental health; and 4. Changing partnership patterns related to education. Relevant authorities, policymakers and development partners will be invited to take part in our annual workshops, and to the final policy and decision maker seminar.

iii. Dissemination to the general public and communities: Based on our research and collaboration with partners, we will disseminate through print and online media, radio debates and 3 short video documentaries. Broadcasting local and national radio programmes on changes in marriage and partnership patterns and how these relate to livelihood possibilities, reproductive and mental health, and education are likely to generate debate and awareness in a wide public, as many rural and urban Ugandans listen to the radio. The 3 short video documentaries on these topics will be discussed during community meetings; they can be used for teaching and will be shared on the project website and through social media. These popular disseminations will ensure that knowledge from the research projects is shared widely in the public and also with the local communities that have participated in the research.


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